When judging a young team, wins and losses can be deceiving. Most freshmen and sophomores simply aren’t ready to consistently win at a high level right away. If you’re trying to see into the future, don’t get caught up in the standings — look for who’s promising.
In Cal baseball’s simultaneously impressive and inconsistent 2017 season, no one shined brighter than freshman Andrew Vaughn, and he’s been rewarded for his stellar debut season with the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year award.
“To hit in the middle of the order as a freshman, it’s like virtually no hitter I’ve ever had,” said head coach David Esquer.
Vaughn was clearly the best Bear at the plate and was near the top of the conference leaderboard in just about every offensive category. He tied with teammate Denis Karas to lead the Pac-12 in home runs (12) and was fifth in OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage). His batting average approached .400 in early April, but he would finish a shade under .350 after a slightly cold stretch in May.
He is the first Bear to win the award, but a fan visiting Evans Diamond would never be able to guess he was a freshman. Most young players ride hot and cold streaks throughout the season and it’s hard to know what to expect from night to night. After getting his feet under him in the first two series of the season, his performance was consistent. Even during that slightly underwhelming stretch in May, he looked confident and drove in runs.
“He’s a throwback in the sense that he’s got great hands and great wrists and he’s able to wait so long before he decides to swing,” said Esquer. “It gives him a chance to adjust to a number of pitches, which is usually the last key the young hitter has to (find). That’s what makes him a little bit more mature than most.”
Unlike the typical freshman, Vaughn consistently maintained his composure in pressure situations. Vaughn hit two walk-off home runs against USC in possibly the most memorable moments of Cal’s season. With runners in scoring position, Vaughn hit an absurd .426/.524/.735 (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage).
If leading his own team in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and runs batted in while recording one of the lowest strikeout rates at the plate wasn’t enough, Vaughn also contributed out of the bullpen. The freshman made 10 appearances and he didn’t allow a run in six of his 10 outings, sporting a sub-three ERA before two rough outings against Arizona State and USC.
The team as a whole struggled mightily on the road, going 7-19 away from Evans Diamond, but Vaughn was a major outlier with almost no noticeable difference between his numbers at home and on the road.
Vaughn was named to the All-Pac 12 team as well. No other Bear joined him there, but freshman Cameron Eden and sophomores Jeffrey Mitchell Jr. and Tanner Dodson earned honorable mentions. Eden was a smooth fielding shortstop who improved at the plate and Mitchell finished second on the team in batting average and was another of Cal’s most consistent producers.
Dodson was a slightly more surprising honoree. The two-way player struggled on the mound, initially starting Friday night games before being moved around the staff and finishing the season with a 5.37 ERA, but he appeared in every game, hit almost .300 and filled in well as a DH.